Elena Udrea: Politically blonde
Statistically speaking, men make up the bulk of those investigated for or convicted of corruption charges. This is also the case of Romania, where in this type of cases women are, by comparison, only a blip on the radar. However, out of those few who did end up behind bars or with a criminal record, no other woman has taken a splashier fall than Elena Udrea.
A long-time advisor and rumoured mistress of former President Traian Basescu, Elena Udrea began climbing the ladder of public office 10 years ago. She trained as a lawyer and had a solo law firm until 2005, the same year when she defended and got Basescu cleared in a controversial land buying case. In 2005 she graduated with an MA in National Security and Defence from the Carol I National Defense University, a university associated with the Romanian Secret Services (SRI) and the alma mater of numerous other high profile political figures, possibly to pave the way for her career in politics.
What comes next is a string of public office appointments, sudden resignations and chronic party switching, all against the backdrop of flashy television appearances and controversial press coverage. In 2004 she became member of the National Liber Party (PNL) and a general advisor and president of the Legal and Discipline Commission on the team of recently re-elected mayor Traian Basescu. At the time, her most significant electoral promise was that she would build a new 6,2-kilometre underground line in Bucharest to serve 300,000 of the capital’s inhabitants. The works that began around that time are still unfinished at the time of writing.
When Basescu was first elected President in 2004, Udrea rose to fame by following him to the Presidential Palace as a State Advisor and the President’s Chief of Staff. During that time she began receiving regular coverage in the yellow press for her luxury outfits. Prominent journalist Cristian-Tudor Popescu even went so far as to name the “Vuitton Kommisary”. At the end of 2005 she resigned after the press proved that there was a conflict of interest between her role and the business carried out by her then-husband, Dorin Cocos (now also convicted of influence peddling and money laundering). 2005 was a year of momentous changes for Udrea, as she also resigned from PNL and followed Basescu to the newly-formed Democratic Party (PD) — later renamed the Liberal Democrat Party (PDL) — where she was soon appointed as executive secretary of the party.
Three years later, Udrea became a member of Parliament in the Chamber of Deputies, and then the Minister for Tourism in the Government led by Emil Boc, as well as an interim Minister for the Environment in October-December 2009, with mixed results. Her performance was also challenged by her party. In 2010 she became president elect for PDL Bucharest, but in 2012 she saw herself forced to resign after the candidate backed by PDL Bucharest for the town hall elections only landed 17,12% of the votes.
At the height of her fame, Elena Udrea competed for the presidency of PDL. Asked in an interview whether Udrea would be suitable as the president of the party, then-President Basescu replied: “She can become suitable. I’m not saying her profile is perfect (…) to become president of the party. But Elena Udrea has grown enormously. And I am convinced that after [being elected as an MP in 2012], Elena Udrea will become a first-class politician.”
She was eventually defeated by Vasile Blaga, and left the party for the newly-founded organisation, the Popular Movement Party (PMP). She garnered support from PMP members to enter the 2014 presidential race, brandishing a flimsy electoral platform, the ambiguous sounding motto “Good for Romania” and plenty of full-length electoral portraits pasted on Bucharest’s buildings. She came in fourth, with 5,20% of the votes.
Things soon began to go south for the politician who had dreamed to “make Romania beautiful again.” In February 2015 the National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) asked the Parliament for permission to prosecute MP Elena Udrea. She was then retained and arrested in the so-called ‘Microsoft Case’, which stated that she had taken bribes to finance several private companies with funds from the Ministry of Tourism. One of these contracts became the object of the Bute Gala case — an event meant to celebrate Romania’s most famous boxer, Lucian Bute. It reached the Supreme Court in April 2015 and it investigated Elena Udrea for charges of bribery, influence peddling, false statements, instigation to abuse of office, and money laundering.
The prosecutors showed that in 2011, in her position as Minister for Regional Development and Tourism, Udrea illegally attributed a contract to Europlus Computers Plc — the company owned by the President of the Romanian Boxing Federation, Rudel Obreja. The object of the contract was to promote Romania at the International Professional Boxing Gala held by the Romanian Boxing Federation, where Romanian professional boxing player Lucian Bute would be present. Without having held a public tender first, the Ministry paid 8,116,800 RON (GBP 1.5 million) worth of public funds to finance a private sporting event.
In the spring of 2017 Supreme Court judges found Elena Udrea guilty of three counts of bribery and another three counts of instigation to abuse of office, which amounted to six years in jail. (Because her case was judged based on the old Penal Code, the verdicts were not cumulated, which would have resulted in a significantly longer sentence.) Asked about the indictment, Udrea said:
“It’s an abusive verdict, it doesn’t take into account the evidence on file. It’s obvious that this stage of the fight, of the war, has been won by the system, but the war is not over yet and it’s not lost”
The sentence is not final, so she may be right on that count. However, it’s unlikely that Elena Udrea will get featured in the sequel to this political comedy anytime soon.